Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Our Primordial World

Pride and Envy are what makes this war go ’round.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Throughout the last two years of war, we have confronted a variety of what we thought were strange occurrences: the conquest of Iraq in a mere three weeks, the subsequent Iraqis’ looting of their own infrastructure, the counterinsurgency operations inside the Sunni Triangle and the weird yearning there for cutthroat Saddam’s return, the sudden wave of suicide bombings worldwide, and the split between old and new Europe. In many cases Americans have been bewildered by such developments, and have attempted to apply reason to a world that does not always care much for logic.

Following September 11, our therapeutic industry — the campuses, the media, the intelligentsia, and many on the political Left — almost immediately sprung into action to insist that such hideous terrorist acts were symptomatic of wide-scale poverty and oppression in the Middle East, much of it caused by the United States. True, Islamic fascism scavenges on the self-induced misery of hereditary autocracy so endemic in the Arab world; but the hijacking murderers of September 11 were themselves hardly poor or illiterate. And their mastermind bin Laden talked of pride, envy, and power — seldom poverty or inequality. This was a creature, after all, who belonged to a world of the “strong horse,” “honor” killings, throwing shoes, and fist-shaking, more at home in the tenth than 21st century.

Where Americans see skill and subtlety in taking out Saddam Hussein and a costly effort to liberate a people, many Iraqis, even as they taste freedom, drive new cars, and see things improve, talk instead of humiliation, hurt pride, or anger at their own impotence — whether whining over the morticians’ make-up work on Qusay, or ashamed about Saddam’s pathetic televised dental examination. Iraqis scream on camera that we should not stay another minute, but even more often whisper that we better not leave yet. Too often they seem to be mostly angry that we, not they, took out Saddam Hussein. While the tyrant’s departure was a “good” thing, it would have been even better had he killed a few thousand Americans in the process — if only to restore the sort of braggadocio lost by the Baathist flight and antics of a mendacious Baghdad Bob.

Israel suffers from the same dilemma of dealing with others’ hurt pride as we do. It created a relatively humane society throughout the West Bank from 1967-1993 — and raised the standard of living, and promoted individual freedom for Palestinians in way impossible elsewhere in the Arab world. But all that won no gratitude; instead, it stoked the fury arising from Arabs’ sense of weakness and self-contempt. In the world of the Palestinian lobster bucket, Israel’s great sin is not bellicosity or aggression, but succeeding beyond the wildest dreams of its neighbors. How humiliating it must be to be incapable of even muttering the word “Israel” (hence the need for “Zionist entity”), but nevertheless preferring an Israeli to a Palestinian ID card.

Indeed Anwar Sadat, by his own admission, went to war in 1973 not to liberate outright the Sinai (that was militarily impossible), but to show the Arab world he could surprise — and for three to four days even stun — the Israelis, and thereby restore the wounded “pride” of the Egyptians. We think that the total encirclement of his Third Army was a terrible defeat — saved from abject annihilation by American diplomacy and Soviet threat. Egyptians saw it instead as a source of honor that it even got across the canal.

We are puzzled, too, at the fury of the “old” Europeans. We think, somehow, that such sophisticated Westerners have surely transcended Middle Eastern tribal chauvinism, and must have other legitimate grounds for their strange new religion of anti-Americanism. But is their venom any surprise, really? Has a Germany or France really left its past behind? The Cold War was merely a tranquilizer that suppressed all the old human urges and appetites, a sort of forced unity brought on by the shared fear of nuclear annihilation — one that disappeared the minute Soviet divisions creaked on home.

The old truth that resurfaced was that the United States destroyed the Spanish empire in 1898, and was pivotal in derailing the Prussian imperial dream in 1918 and in annihilating the Third Reich. It inherited by default much of the role of the British dominion, did nothing in Suez, Algeria, or Southeast Asia to rescue the tottering French Empire, and almost alone bankrupted and dismantled the Soviet imperium. In other words, past notions of European grandeur are no more — and somewhere in that equation of ruin were the mongrel, tasteless Americans, who are now at it again, ending rather easily the fascistic cabals of Milosevic, Mullah Omar, and Saddam Hussein.

Reasonable people might suggest that Europeans and Russians would welcome these events, as no sane person could be fond of today’s megalomaniacs, or even the legacy of monsters like Napoleon, Hitler, or Stalin. But then Dominique de Villepin wrote a hagiography of the little emperor, and Russians talk grandly of the old days when Soviets were feared and respected, not denizens of a motley conglomeration of squabbling, corrupt republics from Chechnya to Georgia.

So even our dealings with a more sophisticated Europe are not exempt from such awakened reptilian instincts. Revelations of recent German and French arms sales, French unilateral intervention in the Ivory Coast, the thousands who perished in the August heat wave in Paris, the spooky election-rhetoric in Germany, the holocaust in the Balkans, the oil deals with Saddam Hussein, the wave of anti-Semitism across Europe, or the callous policy toward Israel — all manifestly reveal Old Europe to be hardly a moral place, but in fact one that narrowly protects its own interests, falls back on bias and hate, and indulges in petty nationalism.

Thus we can dispense with the canard that European hostility toward us is enlightened and has much to do with a genuine feeling that a retrograde United States alone endangers the health and safety of the planet. Instead that deductive hostility has everything to do with the sense of European hurt over how successful our boorish nation should not be.

What are we to do? In fact, very little can be done. Perhaps all we can hope for is to understand rather than ameliorate these pathologies, and whenever possible combine tough love with magnanimity. We need to draw as many troops out of Europe as fast as we can within parameters of military sobriety. Only that way will so-called allies ever shoulder their own defense burdens and thereby regain a sense of national accomplishment. Until then we must respond twofold to every verbal assault on us, even as we praise every European minesweeper, canteen, or police contingent that is now in Afghanistan and Iraq — all the while expecting not much more than a grunt or two of appreciation that we are leading the way.

Our universities laugh at these Thucydidean impulses like fear, honor, pride, and envy, and instead cite either economic rationalism — states war because they need or want things — or deep-seated religious or racial hatred. Such rational catalysts can indeed play a role in conflict, especially civil wars, but — as Donald Kagan wrote about wars from antiquity to the Cuban Missile Crisis— they are rarely alone the prime causes of wars. The Falklands were about as necessary to Argentines’ national security or gross national product as the Moroccan rocks in the Mediterranean are to Spain, or the Druze villages in the Golan Heights are to Syria. Saddam had enough oil without Iran or Kuwait, and China wasn’t looking for oil, farmland, or seeking to implant communism when it invaded Vietnam.

The realization that we have not yet evolved past these baser impulses is critical in this war, since victory entails not merely the military defeat of our often tribal adversaries, but a careful combination of humiliating enemies while allowing credit to go to envious allies and the once defeated. “Hearts and minds” refers not merely to bequeathing good schools, utilities, and safety to Iraqis, but to restoring the pride of the Iraqi people. The trick is for Americans, who sacrifice lives and treasure, and are singularly responsible for the salvation of the Iraqi people, to ignore Arab ingratitude, callousness, and mean-spiritedness and allow them instead the sense of accomplishment that they saved, and are restoring, their own country.

At the risk of sounding monotonous, we cannot win in Iraq until Iraqis, not Americans, are on television — confidently summing up the reconstruction that we in fact are mostly responsible for. All the tiring shoe-shaking, fists in the air, banners, fatwas, and demonstrating we have seen in Iraq — not to mention the dead-end sniping and killing from a dying cabal of criminals — are not explicable just through political or economic gripes, but revolve mostly around wounded pride and a sense of disgrace.

But are not we ourselves subject to these same age-old pathologies? After all, the critics of Mr. Bush claim he went to war to parade American machismo — remember “Smoke ’em out,” “Dead or Alive,” and “Bring ’em out?” Of course, we are not immune to insecurities, but there are a few mitigating factors that render us less prone to hemorrhaging pride and tribal angst. First, we are the world’s most powerful state — indeed, whether we like it or not, the most powerful entity in the history of civilization. With twelve carrier battle groups and another twelve marine transport carriers, we don’t have to talk ad nauseam about something as small and insignificant as the Charles de Gaul. When we refer to the Marine Corps we mean a military larger than any single land army in Europe.

Second, and regrettably, Americans are not by nature much interested in the rest of the globe, given our wealth, obsessive consumerism, and self-absorption. The world thought our weak response to past Iranian hostage-taking, the abrupt pull-out from Vietnam, and the insanely stupid withdrawal from Lebanon were catastrophic signs of American weakness as well as dangerous concessions that might encourage our enemies’ boldness. And they were absolutely right.

But many Americans? Sure, they were angry at Iranians, Arabs, and Communists. But most were just happy that the hostages came home, and thought the fewer Iranian nuts to hog the news all to the good. The less Americans saw of the Bekka Valley and the more of Cheers!, the better. The fist-shaking of the Arab Street can’t even compete with 30-year-old M.A.S.H.reruns.

Third, the stuff of collective ego and insecurity is often a uniform race, religion, or class that only fuels sensitivity to nationalist insults and perceived slights. America in contrast has always been a brew of faiths, colors, and ethnicities, united by shared values and concerned more with money than with accent, birth, or pedigree. So again, while we are patriotic and don’t like bullies, most Americans don’t much care about a national ego that must be fed and coddled by other countries. On almost any given day we turn on the television, surf the news channel, see here an Arab burning an American flag, there a European anti-globalization protester torching an effigy of George Bush, yawn, perhaps mumble out loud “Can’t these losers get a life,” and then plug in a DVD or hit HBO.

As Mr. Bush has grasped, every time we have humiliated our enemies we have gained respect and won security. By the same token, on each occasion we have shown deference to a Mr. Karzai, the Iraqi interim government, and our Eastern European friends, we have helped to create security and stability. Apart from the model of our forefathers who crushed and then lifted up the Germans and Japanese, we could find no better guide in this war than William Tecumseh Sherman and Abraham Lincoln — in that order. The former would remind us that our enemies traffic in pride and thus first must be disabused of it through defeat and humiliation. The latter (who turned Sherman and Grant lose) would maintain that we are a forgiving sort, who prefer restored rather than beaten people as our friends.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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